CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- America has just 5 percent of the world's population, yet it locks up 25 percent of the planet's prison inmates. That's a shameful stain on the freest democracy.
More than 2 million Americans are in prison or jail cells, and 5 million more are on probation or parole. This country holds the world record by confining one adult out of each 31. It costs U.S. taxpayers $60 billion per year.
Logically, these figures imply that Americans are five times more criminal than residents of other nations. But everyone knows that's untrue, because people are pretty much alike everywhere. So the only explanation must be that America is more punitive and harsh-minded than other nations.
"Americans are locked up for crimes -- from writing bad checks to using drugs -- that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries," The New York Times reported. "And in particular, they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations."
Prison overcrowding and expense are forcing some states to release large groups of nonviolent inmates, just to avoid hopeless crises. West Virginia should consider this solution to the state's prison headache. Alternative sentences and day-report centers can allow many felons to remain in society, holding jobs and supporting families.
Former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia crusaded against over-jailing. In a Senate floor speech, he said:
"The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison. Today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200 percent."
Luckily, public opinion is changing about drug imprisonment. In the 2012 election, two states legalized recreational pot-puffing. Soon, most of America may agree that young people shouldn't be ruined by jail terms for this mild offense.
We hope that harsh judgmentalism also fades in other regards, so that America eases its stockade mentality. Putting more defendants into rehab or work-release programs can reduce the national blemish of excessive jailing.